Dutch wooden shoes on Tristan da Cunha

Albert J. Beintema

Anyone who wishes to study the history of Tristan da Cunha has to start with Jan Brander's book Tristan da Cunha, 1506-1902 (Allen & Unwin, London, 1940), the first and still the best book on early Tristan history. Brander was a Dutch teacher in geography and history, with a special interest in whaling. He wrote books about two remote islands: Jan Mayen, in the arctic (1933), and Tristan. Jan Brander dreamt (like many of us) of far away islands, but never ventured into travel himself. He was happiest in his home. He did not even cross the English Channel when he needed archives from London. He did all his research from behind his desk in Flushing.

Brander got interested in Tristan when he read an article about the island, by Schoeler, in the Journal of the Royal Dutch Geographical Society (1930, 47:420-441). Schoeler based his article on Henri Dehérain's book Dans l'Atlantique (Hachette & Cie, Paris, 1910), which already mentioned the 17th century visits of the Dutch ships Heemstede (1643), 't Nachtglas (1656) and Geelvinck (1692). It also mentioned Pieter Groen (who became Peter Green) from the Dutch fisherman's village Katwijk aan Zee, who came to live on the island in 1836, after the shipwreck of the Emily.

Jan Brander went to Katwijk aan Zee, started to dig into archives, and wrote to Green's granddaughter on Tristan, Mrs. Frances Repetto. She wrote him a nice letter back, and Brander was hooked forever. In 1935 he published an article on Pieter Groen in De Telegraaf, a national newspaper.

In 1935 the Dutch Government sent a new submarine, the K-XVIII, to her colonial base in the East Indies. The Dutch were very good in submari- ne building, and they were proud of that. The voyage of the K-XVIII became a great show in the harbours of Dakar, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Durban, Fremantle, and Soerabaia. Between Rio and the Cape, the submarine visited Tristan, on request of the British Government, to report on the health of the islanders. Jan Brander followed the journey with more than average interest. It was what made him decide to write the Tristan book.

Lieutenant Wytema of the K-XVIII reported that the islanders looked fine and healthy, apart from a nasty cough, probably due to improper footwear. The legendary Reverend Harold White slapped him on the shoulder and roared: 'What these people need is some decent Dutch wooden shoes to keep their feet dry!'

Jan Brander got the message. Through local newspapers in Flushing he collected over 750 pairs of wooden shoes for the poor Tristanites. A first batch of 273 pairs was delivered in 1937 by the Cap Pilar, the remainder came with the Milford in 1938.

Brander kept writing with Frances Repetto. In the fifties he raised funds for Tristan again. This time he wanted to suprise every Tristan family with a big Edam cheese on their Christmas table. The cheeses were bought and shipped to Tristan, but never arrived. They were left in a British shipyard warehouse for too long and moulded away.

During my visit to Tristan in October 1993 I asked around whether there would be any of Brander's wooden shoes left. I started in the Museum. There were none, and Catherine Glass did not know the story. The older people remembered the clogs very well. It was great fun, finding a fitting pair in that huge heap, Winnie Green said. Her husband Nelson found them useful in the garden, but not a step beyond. Nice, warm, and dry, yes. But no good on stony or slippery ground. Yes, nice, said Alice and Sidney Glass. Useless, said Michael and Ernest Repetto. But they made lovely firewood.

Apparently, most of the soft-wooded clogs lasted no longer than one or two years, before they split or got holed. None survived. But I located a pair after all. Not on Tristan, but in Holland. Jan Brander gave one pair to his daughter, who is now well in her eighties, and like her father, very much interested in Tristan. The clogs are still in her attick.

Copyright A.J. Beintema, February 1997